Navigating the modern business of book publishing

Self Publishing Part 2: Every great author needs a great publisher

Serious about self publishing

In my previous post I laid out my checklist for self published authors and top of the list was the quality of the writing. By publishing a book you are creating a product that must stand on its own in one of the most competitive markets on Earth. There are literally millions of books published in various formats around the world each year and if you hope to convince discerning readers to pay money for your work then you must make sure that the content of your book is up to a commercially acceptable standard*. A startling number of self published books are doomed to failure simply by virtue of going to print before they are ready and, no matter how good the salesman, if the product doesn’t meet expectations then it’s simply not going sell.

Without going into depth on the craft of writing (there are already a multitude of sites clamouring to tell you how to ‘write what you know’**), one common admission from professional writers is how important their publisher was in turning a good manuscript into a great book. So in this post I’m going to assume that your writing skills are finely tuned and focus instead on the under-appreciated impact that a good publisher has on the quality of a book’s writing.

It’s a fair bet that if your are considering self publishing your book then you would consider yourself an author first and a publisher only by necessity. In fact, you may not fully consider yourself to be a publisher at all. It seems obvious when you say it out loud, but a self published author needs to be both author and publisher, and the distinction between the two roles is very important to keep in mind right from the start. Where the author is the passionate creative the publisher must be the objective, commercially focused business partner – and trying to juggle both can be a real Jekyll and Hyde act.

Considering how to separate both roles and get the balance right is crucial to improving the quality of your writing in your finished book. It’s very common for self published authors to write their entire book in author-mode and only switch into publisher-mode once they believe the manuscript is ready for print. This often leads to the ‘doomed’ books mentioned above that haven’t been subjected to a merciless quality control before going to print. Neither should you allow your publisher-self to thwart your creativity by intervening too early in the writing process. Perhaps the easiest way is to completely separate the writing and the publishing by doing them at completely different times, or even in completely different locations. When you are writing – just write and don’t think about print costs or sales projections. When you are publishing, focus on the big picture and stay objective about the book.

It’s also worth considering how the major publishing houses operate when considering a book for publication. A publisher generally takes on a new book in one of two different ways – either by commissioning an author to write a book on a specific subject or by acquiring a book off a submission from an author or agent. In both cases the publisher’s first priority is to assess the commercial feasibility of the project based on the core premise of the book, the state of the market and the author’s potential. At this stage the publisher does not expect a perfect manuscript but is generally looking for writing that grabs their attention with a distinctive voice, a compelling story and well realised characters and setting. As long as all (or most) of these core elements are in place the publisher will be confident that a good editor will be able fix any problems like plot holes or inconsistencies. As a self-published author you will need hire a professional editor (more on this in the next post) but even the best editors have a limit on how much straw they can spin into gold and the more work they have to do the more it’s going to cost. So, as your own publisher, put each chapter through an acquisitions process before sending your manuscript to an editor and be prepared to reject it if it doesn’t meet minimum standards for voice, plot, character and setting.

A professional publisher will also prepare a business and marketing proposal for each book and present it to an Acquisitions Team made up of representatives from the Editorial, Sales, Marketing, Publicity and Production departments. Taking the time to do a business plan and looking at it from each of these different perspectives will be an invaluable exercise for you to set some goals for your writing and keep it on target, both creatively and financially. Below is a list of points that should be addressed in a business plan for any book:

  • What is the core premise and do you have a strong title and compelling ‘elevator pitch’ summary to hook the reader?
  • Which genre does the book fit in and what are key conventions in this genre that you should be aware of (cover styles, pricing, book formats, readership, tropes, etc.)
  • What books are you competing against? (list authors and titles)
  • How does your book differ from the competition and how will you stand out?
  • Provide three selling points of your book.
  • What formats do you intend to publish the book in? Who will lay these out and produce them?
  • What is the projected length of the book? (Is this appropriate for your genre?)
  • Does your book need illustrations? How many and who will create them?
  • Who is your audience? Which sales channels will you use to reach them?
  • What will be the estimated print cost of your book (based on format and projected length)?
  • What other costs will you incur? (Editing, marketing, review copies, distribution, etc,)
  • How will you price your book?
  • How many books must you sell to break even? To make a profit?
  • What is the timeline for publication and do you have a completion date?

A publisher’s role, whether it be for a major Publishing House or a self publisher, is really about project management and project management is about getting the best out of all your resources. Just because you are a self publisher doesn’t mean you need to do it all on your own. If you have trouble being objective and critical about your writing (and most people do) then find some alpha readers or a mentor to brutalise your work, for example. An author can be blinkered by their emotional investment in a book but a publisher must be a dispassionate champion who shares the author’s vision but can see the larger picture – and sometimes that means getting a second opinion.

* Please note that when I insist a book be produced to a ‘commercially acceptable standard’ I am not talking about writing to the mass market or dumbing down literature – I am suggesting that your book needs to meet the literary standards expected by readers of your chosen genre before you can expect them to pay money for your product.

** My personal favourite writing advice site is – a hugely informative and motivating series of podcasts focused on sci-fi and fantasy, but valuable to any author for its insights into the profession of writing

Go to:

Self Publishing Part 1
Self Publishing Part 2
Self Publishing Part 3
Self Publishing Part 4
Self Publishing Part 5
Self Publishing Part 6


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Categorised in: All Posts, How to Self Publish Series, Self Publishing

5 Responses »

  1. Thanks for the actual real world advice and tips. Too many posts about writing just throw out a bunch of cliches, but this one is useful. Keep up the good work.

  2. Thanks Jason. I’m coming at this from the perspective of someone who distributes self published books and so I’m often the one who has the difficult phone call or email with an author to tell them why their book isn’t strong enough to be sold into bookshops. I see so many authors that are simply not prepared for the business realities of publishing. I hate having to say “No” to authors who have obviously invested their heart and soul (and plenty of cash) into a book but who have fallen short simply because they didn’t take the time to understand the costs and structures of the business they were entering into.



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About Richard

Richard Bilkey has been selling, marketing and distributing books for over ten years, managing independent bookshops, a major online retailer and, most recently, one of Australia's largest Independent Book Distributors, Brumby Books.

Contact Richard directly at
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